Just as I was finishing my book “The Postmodern Parish: New Ministry for a New Era” for the Alban Institute, I received a new call to ministry. For the previous 23 years, I had served as a pastor in two congregations in California. My new call was to a church in Nashville.
As I was preparing for that transition, one of my Alban editors jokingly said to me, “Well, it’ll be interesting to see if what you learned during your 23 years in ministry in California will be worth anything at all to you in Tennessee before you retire.”
I laughed nervously; anxiously aware of that small voice in my head that kept reminding me I was returning to the Bible Belt (I grew up in Mississippi). Would my experience in California have prepared me well for ministry in Tennessee? Or would the two states provide such different contexts for ministry that I would have to learn the art of being a pastor all over again?
In California, after all, it was clear that we were doing ministry in a context that long had been post-Christian and was increasingly postmodern and post-denominational. The Postmodern Parish was, at its heart, a reflection on some of the intuitive and exploratory moves we had made in my last congregation in California in response to living in this new and unfamiliar landscape for ministry.
Nashville, on the other hand, still occasionally touts itself as the “buckle on the Bible Belt,” a place where an older Christendom model for being church probably still worked pretty well. Would I know what to do once I arrived?
I’m happy to say that I did pretty much know what to do in my new congregation. It wasn’t as if they spoke a completely different language there, but it was certainly a different dialect than the language of ministry I had spoken in California.
There are moments now when I’m tempted to relax into that older model of ministry that still “works” pretty well in middle of America and other moments when I want to get on a rooftop and shout, “I’ve seen the future of Christianity in America, and it doesn’t look like this!”
Somewhere between relaxing into the past and being a prophet of the “post” future, I’m learning how to read the particular culture of this place and to determine what style of ministry is faithful to this setting.
This insight has led me to reflect on what I think is a mistaken premise we sometimes make as we talk about what the post-Christian, postmodern, post-denominational future of the church in America looks like. We talk as if whatever this tsunami of change is that is racing toward us; it is sweeping over all of America simultaneously, so that the changing context for ministry in California is the same as the context in Tennessee, and the context in Minnesota, and so on.
In Matthew 16:3, Jesus urges upon us the importance of “reading the signs of the times.” More and more often, now, I find myself thinking he would also urge upon us the importance of reading the signs of the place.
Reading the signs of the place would mean that we would do a serious analysis of our particular context for ministry. We would ask ourselves questions like the following: Do people in this community still know the biblical story, or does it no longer provide the content of their symbolic world? Do people primarily identify themselves by their denominational tradition, or are they using different markers to identify the congregation with which they will associate? Do the younger generations still identify with the worldview of their parents, or are they, in fact, seeing the world through postmodern lenses?
That is why, in my book, I do not recommend that anyone seek to replicate the approaches for ministry that worked in our congregation in northern California. Rather, I hold out our process of discernment as an example of the kind of work pastors and church leaders need to be doing in their own particular context all across the country.
A church futurist was working with the board of a nearby United Methodist congregation in Nashville not long ago. He told them that if all they were concerned about was that the church be there to bury them when they died 20-30 years hence, then they “didn’t need to do a damn thing” to the ways they were thinking about ministry. “However,” he continued, “if you want there to be a vital community of followers of Jesus Christ here 100 years from now, you’d better re-think everything.”
Learn to read the signs of the place as well as the signs of the time. Both are critical if we are to be faithful shepherds.